If you like your historical fiction filled with blood, battles, and alpha males, then Bernard Cornwell is for you. His list of 40+ books covers stories as diverse as King Arthur, the American Civil War, the building of Stonehenge, and Napoleon’s attempts to push Wellington out of Spain, but his current series is called the Saxon Stories: five books to date about King Alfred’s struggle to save a little country called England from the Vikings, and Alfred’s chief warrior whose exploits on the battlefield ensure that Alfred will someday be called “the Great.”
It’s an unconventional partnership to say the least. King Alfred is humorless, tidy-minded, and a fervent believer in Christianity; the strapping hero Uhtred is noisy, aggressive, and a fervent believer in Thor. The two regard each other with exasperation, mystification, and sometimes downright loathing, but the King needs Uhtred if he is ever to push the Vikings out of England, and Uhtred keeps fighting for him although his own sympathies often lie with his Viking friends. Sword Song is the fourth installment in Uhtred’s adventures, and things are looking up for him. He’s no longer chained to an oar as he was through much of the previous book (don’t ask), and he’s settled down happily with a wife he adores and a never-ending supply of battles to fight. Trouble comes in the form of Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed, a teenage princess who has long been a pet of Uhtred’s. Now grown into an appealingly steely girl (the scene where she blackmails an oath of loyalty out of Uhtred is priceless), Aethelflaed is newly and unhappily married to an idiot who promptly manages to get her kidnapped by Vikings. Uhtred’s job, like any hero’s, is to rescue the princess. But what if the princess doesn’t want to be rescued?
Uhtred gets better and better: confident, aggressive, humorous, vital. Alfred is a pious little prat in comparison, and Aethelflaed despite her impossible name is a girl with a bent for adventure whom even Uhtred can’t push around. Start at the beginning of this marvelous Saxon Stories for the full adventure, and give yourself far more than a weekend’s worth of reading.
The priest had come to me in the summer, half grinning, and pointed out that the dues we collected from the merchants who used the river were unpredictable, which meant that King Alfred could never estimate whether we were keeping proper accounts. He waited for my approval and got a thump about his tonsured skull instead. I sent him to Alfred under guard with a letter describing his dishonesty, and then I stole the dues myself. The priest had been a fool. You never, ever, tell others of your crimes, not unless they are so big as to be incapable of concealment, and then you describe them as policy or statecraft.
— From Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell. What do you get when a Christian-born Saxon boy is raised by pagan Vikings instead? Uhtred of Bebbanburg, hero of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Series. Read my review of Sword Song this Friday.
I used to think there was nothing better than finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before. Wrong. Even better than that is finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before, then discovering that it is the first of a series and two more books in the series are already out and another is being released in four months with more books to follow. That is pure heaven. And one way or another, it has been a great year for fiction series. Here are a few books I’m looking forward to in 2011, after being left on tenterhooks by the last installment in the series . . .
1. Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Series.”
Cornwell is just about my favorite historical fiction author out there, and the Saxon Series is his latest smash hit. Revolving around the reign of Alfred the Great in the days when Vikings were still rampaging all over England, Cornwell focuses not on the devout and humorless Alfred as he tries to put a nation together but on Alfred’s most heroic (and reluctant) ally: Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Viking-raised warlord with an unstoppable talent for killing on the battlefield, and an equally unstoppable bent for trouble off it. Cornwell’s last installment The Burning Land left Uhtred bereft of the woman he loves but burying his troubles in his favorite hobby–killing enemies. The next Uhtred book should be out sometime this fall.
2. Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.”
I’m usually a lukewarm fan when it comes to urban fantasy, but Jim Butcher got me hook line and sinker. His Dresden Files are expansive, complex, and always funny, a rare quality in fantasy. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard in modern-day Chicago with a gift for pissing off various forces of darkness, and a complete disability to back down from a fight. His “Have staff, will smite” attitude and steady stream of snarky one-liners has carried him through twelve books to date, and the last, Changes, was the most harrowing yet. Harry has lost everything, including his life . . . or has he? The last page of Changes is one long maddening cliffhanger, thankfully to be solved on April 5, 2011 by the next volume in the Dresden Files, titled Ghost Story.
3. Sara Poole’s “Poison” series.
Sara Poole is a new author I found this year with her novel Poison, a lush and unflinching look at the Italian Renaissance and the always fascinating Borgia family through the eyes of a very unusual heroine. Francesca is the Borgia family’s professional in-house poisoner, a young and deceptively demure-faced girl whose day job is to keep the Borgias alive and their enemies dead. Francesca had me riveted from the first page when she got her job by poisoning her predecessor and then calmly explaining how she did it; a heroine so amoral and yet so centered is a delight. I will be first in line on June 7, 2011 when The Borgia Betrayal is released–the second installment of Francesca’s adventures now that her Borgia master has become Pope.
4. Michael Grant’s “Gone” series.
Cross Stephen King’s Under The Dome with Lord of the Flies, add a dash of X-Men, and you get Gone: the disturbing tale of what happens to a small California beach town when an impenetrable barrier slams down–but traps only the fourteen-and-under crowd inside. Kids begin to mutate alarming powers and a mysterious darkness is growing, but the most interesting part of the story for me is seeing a shy teenager named Sam grow into hero and leader as his brainy girlfriend tries to re-invent a Constitution that will govern fairly and effectively over the increasingly desperate and violent band of children. The fourth book in the series, Plague, will be release April 5, 2011.
5. George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series.
Is there even the smallest chance that we will see Dance of Dragons this year, given that it is now at least two years overdue? One character has been left hanging from a tree by a noose, another rots in jail, a third is stricken suddenly blind, and others have been MIA since the previous book. Oh well, this massive fantasy series remains my favorite in the fantasy genre, about which I am usually fairly unenthusiastic. Martin keeps his work close to history, and I always have fun finding the War of the Roses in-jokes or the Stuart Kings parallels. Let’s hope we finally see the fifth installment this year.
These are only my top five series. I’ve got a lot of reading to do this year, and I look forward to it. Special thanks to the publishers of Michael Grant and Jim Butcher, who were kind enough to schedule Ghost Story and Plague to be released the same day as my second book, Daughters of Rome. It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher figuring out what to do on the day of your novel’s release. It’s not a movie, so there’s no premiere to attend in a fabulous gown. You can’t start checking your online reviews yet, since most people (even assuming they buy the book on the first day) still need to time to read it. You can’t even go down to your local bookstore just to gaze at your book on the shelf, since most bookstores don’t stock your book the minute it is released unless you are JK Rowling or at least Richelle Mead. Last year when Mistress of Rome was released I wandered around my apartment and bit my nails a lot. This year when Daughters of Rome is released, on Tuesday April 5, 2011, I will be nose deep in the adventures of either Harry Dresden or the scrappy mutant kids of the FAYZ. Thank God for distractions.
And for those of you who were kind enough to tell me you were happily anticipating Daughters of Rome as one of your 2011 reads–well, it’s still three months till publication, but I did get permission to post the first chapter. Read here if you would like a sneak peek!
First of all, an apology: I haven’t been blogging for the past few weeks (er, months) because I’ve been busy blogging for other people. I’ve been working on ten–ten!–different guest blog posts for various blogs of historical fiction. It’s thrilling to be asked, and when the time comes I shall post links to all of them, but I do have to admit my own blog has suffered. So, a post that doesn’t have anything to do with ancient Rome or my book Mistress of Rome which is due out in a few weeks and about which I cannot think without hyperventilating.
Some historical periods are just more appealing than others when it comes to fiction, and one of the stars of history is the Napoleonic Wars. C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brien, Bernard Cornwell, and countless others have written volumes of fictional prose about the Napoleonic Era, which is stocked with enough passion, intrigue, violence, and larger-than-life historical figures to furnish a thousand swashbucklers. But two fictional figures stand above the rest for me, bracketing the entire Napoleonic War period from two very different perspectives: C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, and Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series.
Forester’s Hornblower came first, tripping his way through eleven novels, and Cornwell’s Sharpe followed in frank tribute through twenty-two novels and counting. The two series make splendid companion reads not only because they showcase two different sides of the Napoleonic War–Sharpe is a soldier who tears his way through the land battles; Hornblower is a naval officer whose career stays on the water–but because the two men are absolutely nothing alike. In fact, they probably would have hated each other.
Hornblower is the son of a doctor, raised without much money but plenty of education. Sharpe is the son of a whore who grew up to become a chimneysweep, a thief, a murderer, and eventually a soldier, and only learned to read in his twenties during a stint in prison. Hornblower suffers acute agonies of shyness as he climbs the ladders of rank and nobility. Sharpe is hated by superiors and nobility alike and could care less. Hornblower is moody, melancholic, constantly questioning his own courage and leadership. Sharpe bashes his way through everything with snarling defiance to the odds, never pausing for doubt.
Despite their differences, both men are such heroes. Hornblower may doubt himself constantly, but his exploits on the sea will raise the hair on your arms: the night attack where his tiny frigate captures a Spanish two-decker without a life lost; the grueling battle where his outmatched ship takes on four French ships and destroys three before going down herself; his thrilling escape from a French prison. Sharpe’s savage efficiency in battle causes his officers to shudder but General Wellington remarks that with an army of Sharpes he could conquer Napoleon in a month–and you will agree after watching Sharpe capture a French eagle at Talavera, lead an assault on the fortress at Badajoz over the bodies of countless failed assaults, and single-handedly halt a French charge at Waterloo.
The great pity is that these two men will never meet. Sharpe does have one adventure on the sea–a ship he boards from India to England ends up in the middle of Trafalgar–but he doesn’t meet Hornblower there. Hornblower has a few adventures on land–he spends two years captured in Spain–but he doesn’t run into Richard Sharpe, as much as I hope for it every time I read the book. Bernard Cornwell is a huge fan of the Hornblower novels, and would apparently like nothing better than to write C.S. Forester’s hero into one of Sharpe’s adventures, but copyright issues make it unlikely. A pity, because what a book it would be. Hornblower would be appalled by Sharpe’s savagery in battle, and Sharpe would be scornful of Hornblower’s endless ruminating, but the two men just might come to a wary respect after some mutual feat of arms.
Maybe the two can meet up in retirement. Both live to be old and happy men, though each finds happiness in typically opposite fashion. Hornblower ends as a lord and Admiral of the Fleet, venerated and rich, while Sharpe ekes out a cheerful living on a farm in–of all places–France. Maybe Hornblower will take a trip to France in his old age, looking to see the country he fought for so many years, and his carriage will break down at a little chateau in Normandy. He’ll knock to borrow a cart–a white-haired admiral hung with gold braid, with ingrained powder stains on his hands from all the French ships he captured in his youth–and be greeted by a tall scowling officer with a scar on his cheek and an old-fashioned rifle in hand.
I don’t imagine they will like each other even in old age.